You are here
Home > News > From the Archives: Hello, is anyone out there? (1997)

From the Archives: Hello, is anyone out there? (1997)

By Leslie Stackel

Conservative voices have held sway over talk-radio’s airwaves since the 1960s, selling a backlash against progressive ideas to a frightened public married to the status quo. It is hard to believe that this has happened. It continues. How can it be stopped?

Al Franken’s first book was published a year later Rush Limbaugh Is An IdiotThe obese dictator of right-wing radio talk still dominates the airwaves (Thorndike Press Thorndike ME). Limbaugh and his ultraconservative cronies, most notably G. Gordon Liddy and Ollie North, rant continuously against “feminazis,” environmental “wackos,” minorities and all things progressive in a rolling firestorm of sock-it-to-’em hate radio. Their brand of vitriol has earned them over 600 station spots, mostly Rush’s, on nationally syndicated radio, reaching more than 20 million listeners. And despite reams of bad press, reproach from more moderate Republicans and sagging ratings, the Limbaugh ilk continue to infect our country’s talk-radio continuum like a bad flu it can’t shake.

Is there a cure? The long-suffering listener can tune in to get a generous shot in their ears. Is there anyone who will offer a balance sensibility on the other side?

Michael Flarrison is the editor of a radio publication called Talkers Magazine, talk radio isn’t entirely a conservative wasteland. “Dozens” of liberals are found on radio stations around the country, he claims. “About 40% of radio dialog is liberal,” he estimates, “but the media have played up the rightists.”

Maybe. But his 40% figure pretty obviously depends on one’s definition of “liberal.” In one recent study on talk radio by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, for instance, such political talking heads as former New York Mayor Ed Koch and Washington, DC centrist Diane Rehm were somehow deemed “liberals.” By any reasonable definition, one is hard-pressed to find any nationally recognized leftist name in talk radio these days. Harrison concedes there is no Limbaugh of the left, no “national superstars with devoted followings.”

Two candidates are likely to emerge from this static if you just dial around. Jim Hightower, a former Texas state agriculture commissioner, is a populist hell-raiser from Austin whose sharply twangy political assaults and sly humor (as in his regular “Hog Report,” covering “pork” in government dealings and big business) have fetched him a 100-station listening public “from Maine to Maui” since 1991. And there’s Tom Leykis of Los Angeles, a rousingly souped-up, no-holds-barred, left-leaning political riffer with the flair of an AM-radio DJ. Leykis spares no one during his four-hour afternoon broadcasts on Westwood One radio, syndicated to 220 other stations, and he’s been working at it for 26 years. Former California Governor Jerry Brown may have more name recognition than either of these on-air personalities, but his “We The People” program is broadcast strictly over Pacifica nonprofit radio, limited in market scope.

However, neither Hightower nor Leykis, the two top-rated lefties, can be heard in New York City, or in very many other big-city radio markets—an absence not entirely accidental. Jim Hightower briefly broadcast his show over the ABC radio network before 1995, when it was summarily canceled without warning—immediately after word leaked of a planned merger between Disney and Capital Cities, which owns ABC. Hightower lost his network audience despite drawing large audiences. He was criticized for criticizing the Mickey Mouse merger as well as the Telecommunications Act, which permitted it.

The Mouse that Censored

ABC claimed insufficient ad revenue as an excuse for the cancellation, but Hightower points out that the network neglected to pursue his best identifiable source for sponsorship and ad dollars—labor unions. In fact, ABC rejected one union’s $20,000 offer to buy ad space, and dismissed all others as “advocacy advertisers,” unacceptable as commercial supporters. (Officially, ABC would not consider that corporate investors of conservative programs might harbour a political agenda.

This raises the question of whether populist, left-leaning talk radio can be mutually exclusive with commercial success. Hightower appears poised to find the answer. Since mid-1996 he’s been airing a new call-in program from Austin’s downtown Chat & Chew restaurant over United Broadcasting, formerly known as the People’s Radio Network. He might be a great example for progressives all over the world, given his unshakeable leftist views.

As Hightower points out, “We’re definitely about naming names. Unlike most liberal radio hosts, I don’t just talk about vague, social causes of things, but really focus on corporations, and do it by name. When taking on an issue, we go at it in terms of who’s putting up the money for the policy that’s involved with the issue.”

United Broadcasting, Hightower explains, funds itself essentially by acting as “a marketer of made-in-the-USA products. They’re like a Home Shopping Channel, so they’re not at the mercy of big brand-name advertisers.” Co-owned by the United Auto Workers union, founded by libertarian Pat Choate—a former Ross Perot running mate—the network is nothing if not political. With a nod to the current stagnant wave in radioland, United has signed as its other on-air celebrity, ironically, Bay Buchanan, Pat Buchanan’s sister.

The People’s Micropower

Newt Gingrich is adamant that things will not get better until they get worse. The authors and others slashing federal funds from National Public Radio, calling their studiedly neutral tone “too liberal.” Even lower-profile, listener-supported broadcasting venues are gradually caving in to conservative pressure, such as the five-station, 50-affiliate Pacifica Network.

Fed attacks on the stations’ funding sources have led to internal power struggles and, consequently, threatened progressive programming. At Pacifica’s home-base station, KPFA in Berkeley, CA, the board of directors in 1994 purged the most radical voices and installed a slicker, more “professional” corporate-style management team. Now there are similar tugs-of-war raging at both KPFK in Los Angeles and WBAI in New York City—Pacifica’s flagship and longtime bastion of community activism and free speech. According to observers, this all is driving left-wing talkradio in one direction: underground.

“I see progressive voices on radio being forced underground, and I see pirate radio spreading all over the country, which is both good and bad,” says HIGH TIMES editor-at-large Bill Weinberg, cohost of “The Moorish Orthodox Crusade” on WBAI (a mix of anarchist political analysis and pop culture that he says is “hanging by a thread”). “Bad because when underground, things get more precarious and fewer people get to hear it. And good because being underground is purer and keeps you in that hardcore adversarial spirit, which has been eroded by progressive radio being on the federal teat for so long.”

Stephen Dunifer was an outspoken leader for the unlicensed pirateradio movement. In 1993, he founded Free Radio Berkeley. Dunifer says he was driven to defy the Federal Communications Commission by a mixture of factors: the Reaganite political climate of the 1980s and early ’90s; media coverage of the Gulf War and other foreign issues by press release and sound bite, and by the abandonment of local grass-roots activism on Pacifica’s stations.

The final straw came in 1993, with KPFA’s muting of Dunifer’s friend Dennis Bernstein, after Bernstein had challenged the mayor of Berkeley’s claim that she’d had no involvement in mobilizing a police riot squad during a protest that year in People’s Park. During an on-air interview, Bernstein produced some of the mayor’s correspondence, procured via the Public Records Act, between her and the UC Berkeley chancellor, proving they’d worked together “hand in glove” during the police action.

“She freaked out on the air,” says Dunifer. “Two weeks later, Dennis gets a message from the station manager saying ‘lay off the mayor.’ Very clearly, we were dealing with an established progressive-liberal political machine.” KPFA was no longer “the people’s station,” and so Dunifer set up Free Radio Berkeley at 104.1 on the dial to fill the void.

Dunifer and other radio rebels “are reacting to a situation in their areas, where public radio is not quite as public as it’s supposed to be,” says Estelle Fennell, news director of KMUD (91.1 FM), a community station in Garberville, CA, 200 miles north of Berkeley. KMUD, she acknowledges, is “unique” in its independence at a time when all traditional alternatives to mainstream media are failing their listeners. “College stations are tied in to college politics,” she observes, “and too many community stations are tied in to a kind of polish and topdown mentality,” leaving activists with little choice but to seek other outlets.

KMUD, Fennell contends, exemplifies the necessary alternative—stations committed to their local listeners, regardless of the risk. Located in Humboldt County, a heavy potgrowing area, KMUD routinely airs up-to-the-minute reports and warnings of helicopter raids of growers’ fields—some while in progress—to the ire of regional cops and federal DEA agents. Apart from a few other stations “like KAOS in Seattle,” she says, “I can’t think of many other local [licensed] stations with a good, committed, free attitude.”

However, there are others on both the east and west coasts. Chuck Rosina of Boston, the news director at MIT’s college station, WMBR (88.1 FM), is a hardcore homeless-rights advocate. On his own two-hour show, “No Censorship Radio,” Rosina says he generally pushes the limits of free speech on the Pacifica affiliate, and suggests management “looks the other way so long as we don’t get major complaints.”

At his home studio, “W Bla Bla Bla,” though, Rosina puts together show segments for general distribution, often collaborating with “pirates” from Boston and Berkeley, and in these projects, “no censorship” is the guaranteed uncompromising rule.

Stephen Dunifer, elaborating on Bill Weinberg’s comments, says massive numbers of independent thinkers and activists are turning to outlaw radio. The preferred term is “micropower broadcasting,” since pirate radio uses low wattage compared to commercial enterprises, and it’s been “popping up everywhere around the country.” Dunifer estimates about 400 stations now exist border-to-border. On the West Coast it’s rampant, and elsewhere as well its guerrilla reporters and interviewers are frontline activists, not just talking heads.

Three politically-minded Texas co-founders of Kind Radio San Marcos (105.9FM), southwest Austin gained notoriety in the United States as part of the San Marcos Seven. The group, which was arrested after a spontaneous cannabis smoke-in at Hays County Jail, served short sentences. They started their pirate operation last March and cover pot use, legalization and other important issues through news, interviews and talk. “We devoted an entire ‘Common Sense’ call-in show to people’s first experiences with marijuana,” recalls co-founder Joe Ptak. Setting up and running a micropower station, he says, “is easy and fun.”

Even more ambitious in stamping out censorship is Free Speech TV, the Boulder, CO alternative-programming service which packages and distributes shows to about 70 cable and public-access TV stations nationwide, and runs a website ( using material from both pirate and licensed radio. “We believe in the aim of micropower radio, to take the airwaves away from the powers that be,” says Web editor Joey Manley. “We use stuff from people like Napoleon Williams of Black Liberation Radio in Detroit, who’s currently embattled in disputes with the FCC, and some other microstations.” This material is mixed in with great legit radio, like Mike Thornton’s “Full Logic Reverse” on KVMR in Nevada City, CO. “Any issue the left champions doesn’t get access to the media,” Manley notes. “What we want is to get these ideas into the mainstream of society.”

Paul Griffin (free radio Berkeley host, founder of Association of Micro-Power Broadcasters) says organizing is important. He encourages people to join the group and attend the annual micro-proponent conference, which will be held in Carson, CA.

FCC You Limbaugh

Free Radio Berkeley achieved history in April when the FCC attempted to close it down. Federal District Judge Claudia Wilken refused to grant the commission an injunction to close the rebel radio operation, the first repulse ever for the FCC in such a case, pointing out that “there were real constitutional questions here that should be resolved in a trial,” according to Dunifer. Most of those questions concern obvious First Amendment free speech issues.

Dunifer expects that the FCC’s second motion to cut off the station, now awaiting a ruling, will keep the case in the legal system till around the year 2000. Micropower should flourish by that time. Like all radical action, this systematic movement could influence and even empower mainstream, liberal and left-leaning “legitimate” broadcasters.

The progressives working in commercial radio try to keep up with the current wave of conservative broadcast hosts. Pumping up listenership for these alternative hosts, though, often means learning to switch frequencies—not in terms of airwaves, but in their on-air personality and general modus operandi.

Tom Leykis is one of them. He believes that station owners won’t come knocking unless progressives disprove the myth that liberals are boring radio.

“See,” he says, “Limbaugh has convinced people that no liberal is entertaining. There’s some truth in that,” he jokes, “but it’s not 100% true.” Moderates are all too often, by definition, moderate: “A lot of liberal hosts are afraid to take stands,” diagnoses Leykis, “’cause they’re afraid of offending people. You get all these nice liberals saying, ’Well, I can understand on the one hand how people would feel this way, and on the other hand how they’d feel that way’, like NPR, which induces coma.” Radio hosts, he insists, “have to be willing to get down in the mud with anyone” and “not afraid to take quotable, sound-bite stands.”

Leykis, a former music DJ, is now a stand-up comedian. He believes that entertainment alone makes a gab-show fun. It’s not politics slanted in any way. According to him, political advocacy is second-rate. And the fact that Rush Limbaugh’s megasuccess as an entertainer has been matched by neither liberal nor conservative stands as proof of Leykis’ canny insight.

Whatever the formula for success in commercial radio, cracking the current conservative hegemony on call-in shows won’t be easy, says Steve Randall, senior analyst and resident talk-radio expert for FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Historically, he explains, “Political talk radio arose as a major phenomenon in the 1960s, and the first star of the form was Joe Pyne on KABC, who was considered a real hatemonger. Talk radio in those days was a bunch of white guys on the right railing against the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, women’s liberation and so on. It was born in backlash, and has been that way for 35 years.” By now, Randall says, right-wingers have well-paved inroads: “They’ve cultivated an audience who are used to their ideas, their political viewpoints, and what they consider humor.” Liberals have to do the same.

Jim Hightower claims that the liberal voice is on its way. People are obviously getting tired of Limbaugh: “He’s becoming boring and he’s essentially out of material, because he spends all his time on the air just attacking Bill Clinton and defending Newt Gingrich. He’s become the national press spokesman for the Republican Party.” Folks, he believes, are ready for real populism on the airwaves, not the “faux populism” of Rush. As for his kneejerk copycats, they’re losing not only credibility but ratings. In fact, notes Hightower, “If it weren’t for the Christian networks, Ollie North would be long gone.”

Chronic News MagazineNovember 1997

The complete issue is available here.